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“I’ve often found myself asking this question and recently Troye Sivan tweeted about it so I felt like I should ask you guys: If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean? If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it (as an imaginary thing), then how can this coexist with transgenderism?”
-Question submitted by Anonymous
Liam Lowery Says:
First, a disclosure: I have thought about your question every spare moment I have had for over a month. It is a good question, one that people (particularly people who have been aware/accepting of trans identities for a while) ask me pretty often, so I want to answer it as thoroughly as possible.
If gender is a social construct, then what does being trans actually mean?
Gender is a social construct. This is a phrase that anyone who’s taken a gender studies class (or looked at the Feminist Ryan Gosling meme) in recent years could parrot back to you. At the same time, trans and gender-nonconforming people have recently become visible in ways we were not before, pushing for equal or sometimes trans-specific rights and resources. When considered together, this presents an obvious question: If gender is constructed, then how can trans be a “real” identity?
Well, there’s a catch. This question assumes that social constructs can’t have deep-reaching effects on the ones who, within the construct, are perceived as “less than” or “other.” Social constructs, more than anything else, govern the way that systems cause violence to marginalized groups. Calling something a social construct doesn’t eliminate its power, or meaningfully address the harms people in the out-group experience.
I don’t feel like gender is only a social construct when I am treated differently because of my gender identity, like when a supervisor advises me to talk less about trans issues to benefit my career, or when a colleague asks me to “explain” Caitlyn Jenner (statements made by well-meaning people who are, for all intents and purposes, allies). Gender itself may be a social construct, but the gender binary has very real consequences—for trans individuals and for cis-women, too. In the patriarchal world we live in, male assigned and identified people experience privilege that female-identified people do not. Transgender people, though, typically experience being outside of and unrecognizable to this gender system—even when we are read as cisgender, we are still subject to harms based on our trans status at any point when we come out or are outed.
But being trans also means digging deep inside yourself and discovering riches beyond telling. It means that, while people may have told you that you were crazy, that this would alienate you from your family, or that you would get yourself killed, you knew yourself, and chose to live as yourself. Being trans means moments of clarity, spiritual awakening, joy, and self-discovery, all in the face of deeply ingrained opposition. It means you led your own uprising, and are now the sovereign of your own nation-state. Being trans is the truest kind of victory, the kind that is won with a great deal of expense. It is indescribable, and these words are clumsy in trying to capture it. My point is, it definitely means something—something very deep, personal, and impossible to explain.
If one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism is ending gender as we know it, then how can this coexist with transgenderism?
Transgender identities are complicated and not uniform. They include all kinds of people with all kinds of goals for how gender should evolve and change. So this question I can only answer for myself.
Gender is a multi-faceted word, but I think what you mean here is that one of the goals of fighting cis-sexism [the valuing of cisgender identities through framing gender discussions around cis identities and making trans identities “other”] is working to end the gender binary. In my experience, transgender identities (and learning to respect them) serve to undermine the gender binary!
While the gender binary is a system of oppression that subjugates women and disenfranchises trans people, gender identity is flexible and highly individualized. Ending the gender binary does not mean eradicating gender identities—far from it. It means making space for more of them. Being able to claim your own gender identity is a valuable part of the human experience, and everyone ought to be able to do so without the fear of violence.
There are some who would say we do not need to end the gender binary, but just complicate it more and create space for non-binary identities to be recognized. While personally I believe we can and deserve to go further, complicating the gender binary is certainly the first step towards creating space for all people to live authentic lives—not in spite of their gender identities but because of them.
Until we agree to listen to each other and allow all people to be the experts on their gender identities, the gender binary will persist. So put your gender pronouns in your email signature, teach trans 101 workshops at your school, and most of all, assume less and listen more.
We also need to address access to gender-affirming healthcare and protect against employment discrimination, not to mention protecting trans people’s rights to use the restroom of their choice.
I eagerly prepare for the day when all of us take ownership of our bodies and cast off the yoke of a binary gender system that harms every person—a day when we are all trans, determining our identities as we see fit, and moving about a spectrum of gender identities rather than clinging to a socially constructed, harmful binary. I should say, though, that while this might be the endgame, being trans has never been about an endgame for me. My trans identity is the exact place where the personal intersects with the political. This is just who I am, and this work is done in the hopes that you, and only you, can get to be just who you are, too.
Your question about fighting cis-sexism through ending the gender binary is an evolving one. Just as the butch community who nursed our community through the AIDS crisis could never have predicted the current prevalence of trans identities at the time, we can’t assume what the future will hold, or how our conceptions of gender and identity will evolve over time. Gender is a product of place, culture, and the economy—consider, for instance, how third-gender people in the Philippines are more and more claiming binary trans identities because of globalization. I’m sure my answer, my identity, and my point of view will seem outdated even a decade from now.
But today at least, to fight the gender binary, we must keep our heads down and work, and allow ourselves to be surprised by what the future holds. I bet the next crop of rainbow children will have brilliant ideas and move our world forward in ways we never could have imagined.
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7 thoughts on “What Does Being Trans Mean If Gender Is A Social Construct?”
This is mind-bogglingly brilliant! I don’t think I ever envisioned myself as anything but male (but never the jock, muscular, macho version), but I can honestly say that I have learned a lot about the trans-gender issue, and I’m learning more all the time. As soon as I started seeing gender as a spectrum, I could see a world where everyone sat comfortably at ANY point on that spectrum, and accepted everyone that lived elsewhere on the spectrum. And yet I’m not brave enough to share this excellent blog on my FB page, because I know that a significant portion of my FB friends would not understand where I was coming from. “Has Charlie just come out as a gay? Or Bi?” I’m not brave enough to say to the world what I am. I find it easy to place myself on the spectrum, but I don’t know who or what I would be if the concept of gender disappeared entirely. I have completely accepted, not just with tolerance, but with love and support, a family member who has transitioned their gender. I’m considered an ally by some. Everyone is deserving of love. I just have to work things out for myself, from a position of privilege, how to live with myself in a changing world that is so different from the one I grew up in, six decades ago.
Really good read, I’ve always argued that being; gay, straight, trans or whatever is a result of social construct and is a ‘choice’ pretty and I’ve ended up sounding pretty controversial to anyone who wasn’t listening carefully enough. I never said any of it was wrong but I would have people claiming I didn’t understand etc etc. I oppose of people having operations to change themselves from ‘man to women’ (or the other way round) I think it seems much more logical for society to change its view on gender.
My question about the intersection of Gender being a social construct and trans-gender identity is with small children.
It feels to me like when a child says their birth sex doesn’t line up with their gender, I wonder why they would even think that.
What taught them that their body and their spirit didn’t line up? To me, coming from a point that I admit is largely ignorant, that seems like society telling them they don’t fit.
My sibling is a-sexual and says they never felt like a girl. But what does it mean for a 5 or 6 year old to feel like a girl or a boy, but what society has pushed onto them.
This is where, for me, it seems like trans is a solution to a social problem, where instead of a child discovering who they are, a child learns who they “should” be, and that they don’t line up.
My own children didn’t fit in traditional gender, and we worked to protect them from negative assertions about gender and their behavior. My daughter to this day doesn’t feel like she fits in with other girls, she isn’t into the same things, she prefers competitive sports and astronomy, but she has been quite intentionally bombarded with reinforcement that she doesn’t have to like dolls or cheerleading or styling her hair.
I understand I’m giving the most superficial of examples here, but it seems to me that even more intense (is that the right word?) differences might someday not cause children to say “I’m not a boy/girl” but just a person who has their own spirit that isn’t like anyone else’s.
Interesting post. However, I’m not sure if I’m missing something, but I feel like it didn’t directly address the original question. The comment above me from February 2017 brought up an interesting point.
I think this contradiction stems from confusing gender as an expression and gender as a physical state of being. Gender as an expression (men wear blue women wear pink) does seem to be socially constructed and can vary in its style and rigidity across cultures. For many trans people though, these gender expressions are not the root of our need to transition. In my experience my need to transition was physical. I wasn’t dysphoric because I was wearing blue and needed to wear pink. I was dysphoric because I was a male bodied person who needed to be female bodied. I wore blue before I transitioned and I still wear blue today. My body changed but to a large extent my gender expression did not. Obviously pink and blue represent a wide range culturally constructed gender expressions in this analogy.
I relate to this a lot. I also need to physically transition to masculine features but I still enjoy floral shirts. I want to wear skirts and dresses again once i am more male passing. My style of clothing and my hobbies do not make my gender.